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Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

Depression and the Blue Collar Ethos

If you’ve been living somewhere among the outer planets during the last couple of days, you might not realize that iconic actor and comedian Robin Williams recently died. That means in the coming weeks we’re bound to be subjected to runs of many of his movies, both the good ones and the ones that are not so much. I’m looking forward to seeing the runs of Good Will Hunting, the 1997 indie blockbuster in which Williams won his very deserved Oscar for playing Sean McGuire, the court-ordered shrink to Matt Damon’s titular title character, Will Hunting.

There’s a kind of sad irony in the fact that Williams gave perhaps the greatest performance of his career in maybe the best movie of his career as a psychologist. The official ruling on Williams’s death was suicide, and I’ll spare the platitudes about depression and everything non-sufferers don’t get about it. They’re trickling in at what has to be a record rate, and depression in and of itself really isn’t the point of this post anyway. Good Will Hunting might be my favorite movie from the eccentric filmography of Robin Williams, save maybe Aladdin. Although the movie takes place in Boston, there’s a serious element of Good Will Hunting that really clicks true in Rust Belt cities, and it results in a movie which is able to attack one of the dominant aspects of Rust Belt life while avoiding the kind of condescension and elitist views of the blue collar class which is typical of Hollywood directors. (And the insufferable Robert Altman in particular, whose death I continue to view as addition by subtraction.) The South Boston/Rust Belt commonalities are many and very minute, if Good Will Hunting’s portrayal of Southie is to be believed.

Many American cities like to view themselves as tough, take-no-shit kinds of places, living by examples of bootstrap-pulling toughness even in the worst-case scenario. I can’t think of a single place in the country that tries to exemplify this kind of ethos more than the Rust Belt. The Rust Belt is so hopelessly obsessed with this image that many of the people who live on it will place it before any and all personal progress, bringing the whole toughness thing into every decision they make, be it in family or career or anything else they consider living for. This leads to some very destructive contradictions: Rust Belt people are branded from birth with the idea of lending a hand to anyone in serious need, but when in need themselves, actually accepting such help is considered emasculating. The people who offer the help are always dead serious about it, too; if someone should take up our help offerings, we’ll drop everything in an instant and see our promises kept through right up until the very end. That makes it very bewildering and sometimes tragic that most people prefer to turn down the offered help and make the situation even worse.

Therefore, Buffalo is a strict adherent of the “just” culture. That’s the beloved idea always spouted by Fox News pundits that, whatever the problem is, you can turn your entire life around by merely going out and doing the opposite. Are you poor? Why, just go out and get rich! Are you sick? Hey, that’s easy – you just have to get healthy! It can be summed up rather easily with a single, very famous line from the popular sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “Oh, get a job? Just get a job? Why don’t I strap on my job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land, where the jobs grow on jobbies?!” If only it were so simple, right? What’s unfortunate is that in most of the Rust Belt, people really do think it’s that simple, and the lower classes which are truly affected are too busy blaming each other to ask themselves why the higher classes – those always being touted as the ones who create the opportunities for the lower classes – have been creating rather less opportunities as of late. Of course, if asked, the higher classes will probably spout the same bullshit comments about pulling ourselves up from the bootstraps. It’s a well-rehearsed routine.

Depression tends to get treated in such a manner on the Rust Belt too. Feeling blue? Just cheer up! This is partially the result of the city’s piss-poor education system, which just this last year brought its high school graduation rate up past 50 percent for the first time in decades. (And even now, the current 53 percent graduation rate isn’t exactly worth writing about.) It’s also because Buffalo also runs around sporting a real 50’s mentality, which means you do your brooding in secret and pray your ass off to a very specific god until you magically turn happy again. Ask anyone from Buffalo, and they’ll tell you that’s all depression is – eternal sadness. Therefore, all ou have to do to cheer up is toss a funny movie into the DVD player or read the daily funnies in The Buffalo News.

The problem with depression on the Rust Belt is less that the people who live on the Rust Belt don’t understand it, but more the fact that they are very adamant in refusing to try to understand it. Being a good Rust Belt citizen means clinging desperately to the ways of the olden days, even though this adherence to the old ways is clearly contributing to the downward spiral of the region. The Rust Belt locked itself in and insulated itself against forward progress as soon as the steel industry started bailing on it, and the whole area is still under the mistaken impression that trying to pretend everything is like it was during the apex of the postwar boom will actually make the various cities prosperous again. The same revitalization that turned Pittsburgh and Philadelphia around came when those two cities finally recognized that the region will never be an industrial dynamo again. Change like that requires the entire populace to start thinking differently, and Pennsylvania’s two biggest cities have apparently performed admirably. Buffalo, not so much.

Unfortunately, this old time mindset leads the Rust Belt to treat mental problems like they’re paper cuts. Those of us who suffer from depression while living on the Rust Belt are therefore forced to deal with the isolation and loneliness through the rather dangerous method of pretending they don’t exist. It’s hard to say we can deal with it through other means; we’re not taught any other means, and if we are, it’s so we get the strict impression that those who do resort to those other (smarter) means are wusses who just aren’t the tough joes we are. Trying to explain your personal depression to people is a quick way to get an angry brush-off statement.

Depression is also easily compounded by the dominant way of life on the Rust Belt. With the 50’s mindset still gripping peoples’ thoughts and lives with an iron clasp, there’s a very strict script creating that terrible illusion known as “normality.” I give the region a lot of shit about its general lack of curiosity, but it’s hard to tell just how much curiosity actually exists here. That’s because anyone who holds any sense of curiosity, intellectual or cultural, tends to keep their interest on the down low. Science in Buffalo is treated the same way they treated witchcraft in Salem, and most people who believe in any kind of religion adhere to the toxic forms of it which propagate exclusivity and teach the idea of self-unworthiness. This adds up to the fact that any freethinkers who live on the Rust Belt have to bottle themselves up and wear their more socially acceptable masks in public. That’s basically a form of mental self-suffocation, and those who are forced to do it for too long tend to fall deeper into depression. Many end up crawling to the bottle and contemplating suicide. I’ve done the latter at least three or four different points in my life sometimes.

That’s why I love Good Will Hunting so much. We see Will Hunting trapped in the Rust Belt tough guy mindset, trying to live by a certain code which has been drilled in since childhood but is clearly against his better interests. Sean McGuire is successfully able to break through every mental defense Will erects against him, finally breaking Will down. The Hollywood ending, with Will quietly leaving Massachusetts to reunite with the girl his mental defenses stupidly made him ditch earlier, is a gratifying one for all. For me and others who go through depression on Rust Belt blue collar terms, the big reward is in seeing the moment when Will is able to change the way his head is programmed. He awakens to the fact that what his blue collar culture instilled in him doesn’t work, and his departure to follow Skylar is not only the right choice for his heart, but a subtle form of rejecting his old culture and his bad habits.

Sadly, Will Hunting’s end doesn’t happen for enough people who live by the rough and tumble blue collar ethos of the Rust Belt, because we don’t have a Dr. McGuire or a Chuck, a best friend who is able to muster enough realism to tell Will he probably would be best off someplace else. Anyone who gets depressed to the point of suicide living on the Rust Belt will likely have to gather enough courage to admit it to themselves before acting on it. And when (if) they do, fortunately, there’s a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline they can call at 1-800-273-8255.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

One response »

  1. This was an insightful read.

    Growing up in a major city, I’ve always wondered what life was like in parts of the country where industry once thrived. My assumption was that there is much more to the story than the obvious.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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